Mountaineering originated in the 18th century in Europe. Religious superstitions deterred earlier climbers. The first major peak to be climbed was the French Mont Blanc in 1786 by Swiss climbers. British climbers and explorers in the 1800s climbed every major peak in Europe, North and South America and Africa. It wasn't until this century that a Himalayan peak was attempted, an in 1953, with the assistance of oxygen tanks, Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzig Norgay of Nepal reached the top of Mt. Everest (8848 m, 26,504 ft), the tallest peak in the world. Recently a number of Canadians also climbed Everest.
Mountaineering requires a fair amount of equipment, though it can be rented and is often included with a course. The essential equipment includes: warm, waterproof clothing including gloves, hat, gaiters, leather or plastic mountaineering boots, "crampons" (pointed metal plate affixed to boots for better traction on ice and snow), harness, ice axe and backpack for carrying food, extra clothing and emergency gear.
Other equipment, typically shared by the climbing party, includes climbing ropes, ice screws, rescue pulley, and snow shovel.
Beginners should take a mountaineering course, an avalanche and ice safety course, or consider hiring a personal guide. To find out about courses and/or guides, call the University of Calgary's Outdoor Program Centre (220-5038), or Yamnuska in Canmore(403-678-4164).
The Canadian Rockies offers an unlimited range of climbing for mountaineers of varying abilities. A classic ascents for new climbers is Mt. Athabasca, overlooking the Columbia Icefields on the Jasper Parkway (three hours west of Calgary). With an early start, you can be back in Lake Louise for dinner. The Icefields adjacent to Mt. Athabasca is also a good place to become familiar with the gear, as it is avalanche-free but has plenty of crevasses to practice safety (and rescue) procedures.
For experiences climbers (with a few days), Mount Robson is a legendary climb. Located 50 kilometres west of Jasper, it is the southern Rockies' highest peak, with its own micro-climate.
WARNING. Mountaineering requires essential safety precautions to avoid unnecessary risk. For difficult or challenging climbs a guide familiar with the area is recommended.